Exfoliation removes dead skin cells from the outer layers of the skin. It can be beneficial for removing dry or dull skin, increasing blood circulation, and brightening and improving your skin's appearance.
There are different exfoliation methods. Your skin type should determine which way you use it and how often you exfoliate. For specific skin conditions, including rosacea, exfoliation isn't usually recommended.
What Is Exfoliation?
Exfoliating the skin is the process of removing dead cells from the outer layer of your skin using an exfoliant, which could either be chemical or physical. There are a couple of ways to exfoliate physically.
The first involves using a skincare tool, such as a sponge, towel or brush, on your skin to displace and remove dead skin cells.
The other method consists of using a liquid, gel or scrub with granules like microbeads or sugar to smooth and refine the skin.
With chemical exfoliation, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) or enzymes are used to loosen the glue-like substance that holds dead skin cells together, so they are easily removed.
Why You Should Exfoliate Your Skin
Your skin is constantly repairing and replacing itself. Because of this, you can be left with layers upon layers of dead skin all over your body. Exfoliating helps rid your body of these excess dead skin cells, revealing healthier and brighter skin.
While brighter skin is certainly a perk, exfoliation can help improve the health of your skin as well. If your skin is riddled with dead cells, your skincare products may not be able to penetrate and do their work.
By removing the top-most layer of skin, you're making it easier for your topical treatments to sink deep below the surface where they could make a difference.
If you have acne-prone skin, exfoliation can help clear out clogged pores that often lead to breakouts. It can also help fade acne scars faster by accelerating skin cell turnover and stimulating collagen production.
What to use to exfoliate
There are different methods and tools to exfoliate the skin. Facial scrubs and brushes are forms of mechanical or physical exfoliation. Acids and skin peels are forms of chemical exfoliation.
Mechanical exfoliation works by physically removing dead skin rather than dissolving it. It's less gentle than chemical exfoliation and works best for normal to oily skin. Avoid using mechanical exfoliation on sensitive or dry skin.
- Exfoliating brush. This is usually a bristle brush used on the face or body to remove layers of dead skin cells. Some are designed for dry brushing. Others can be used with your facial cleanser or body wash.
- Exfoliation sponge. These are a gentler way to exfoliate the skin. You can lather an exfoliating sponge with warm water, soap, or body wash in the shower.
- Exfoliating glove. If you find brushes or sponges challenging to grip, you can use a glove. Lather it with soap or body wash in the shower. They can be effective for large areas such as legs or arms.
- Exfoliating scrub. This can be applied directly to the skin using a gentle, circular motion. You can wash your skin with warm water after applying the scrub.
While it sounds harsh, chemical exfoliation is the gentlest exfoliation method. Still, make sure you follow all of the manufacturer's instructions because you can easily overdo it.
- Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). Examples of AHAs include glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids. These work by breaking apart bonds holding dull and dead skin cells on your skin's surface. This will cause your skin to shed dead particles naturally.
- Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). Examples of BHAs include beta-hydroxy and salicylic acid. These may be better for acne-prone skin.
- Enzymes. Enzyme peels contain enzymes, usually from fruits, that remove dead skin cells on your face. Unlike AHAs or BHAs, enzyme peels won't increase cellular turnover, meaning they won't expose a fresh layer of skin. This makes them a perfect option for people with sensitive skin.
What not to use
Regardless of your skin type, avoid exfoliators that contain irritating or coarse particles, which can injure your skin. When it comes to exfoliation, not all products are created equal. Many scrubs that have exfoliants in them are too harsh for your skin.
Stay away from exfoliators that contain:
- coarse salt
- baking soda
Which type of exfoliator is best to use?
There are two main types of exfoliants: physical exfoliants (like face scrubs and clay masks) and chemical exfoliants (like acid serums and peels). Some products incorporate both.
As for the best kind? There's no 100% objective answer (though most experts caution you away from over-exfoliating with physical scrubs).
Who says you have to limit yourself to using just one mask? Go ahead and try multi-masking—i.e., applying different face masks to other areas of your face at the same time— with OVI Deep Cleansing Face Mask. Consider what skin concerns you have, then pick your face masks accordingly.
How to Exfoliate Your Face
When using a physical exfoliant, start by washing your face with your regular cleanser. Then, take a quarter-size amount of your face scrub and apply it onto your face in circular motions, avoiding the eye area. Gently massage the product onto the skin for as long as your specific product recommends, usually from 30 seconds to a full minute.
Then, rinse off with warm water and gently pat your skin with a clean towel. Follow with a hydrating mask, serum or cream.
When using a chemical exfoliant, wash your face with a regular cleanser. If your chemical exfoliant comes in a pre-moistened cloth or pad, apply this all over your entire face, neck, décolleté and even the tops of your hands.
Allow a few minutes for a chemical exfoliant to be wholly absorbed into the skin before moving on to the next step in your regimen, which may be a treatment serum or cream.
Do the same for exfoliants in the forms of gels or serums. Some types of chemical exfoliants, often called "peels," are used similar to a mask application and are required to be rinsed off after a few minutes. Always check your product label to make sure you're using it correctly.
Remember that exfoliating your face should only be done about one to three times a week, as exfoliating too often or too hard may cause micro-tears on your skin's surface and strip your skin's protective layer. If you have inflammatory acne, rosacea or hypersensitive skin, ask your dermatologist to determine what exfoliant to use and how often to use it.
When mechanically exfoliating, it's essential to be gentle on your skin. You can make small, circular motions using your finger to apply a scrub or use your exfoliating tool of choice.
If you use a brush, make short, light strokes. Exfoliate for about 30 seconds and then rinse off with lukewarm — not hot — water. Avoid exfoliating if your skin has cuts, open wounds, or is sunburned. Apply a moisturizer with SPF after exfoliating.
Exfoliation is essential for dry or flaky skin. Avoid mechanical exfoliation on dry skin because the process is drying, and it can lead to microtears. AHAs are effective for dry skin.
Glycolic acid will help remove dead cells sitting on the skin's surface and encourage healthy skin turnover. Follow up with an SPF and moisturizer after using glycolic acid. It can make the skin more prone to sun damage.
Avoid scrubbing or using mechanical methods of exfoliation. These will irritate your skin further and can lead to redness. Use a mild chemical exfoliator and apply with a gentle washcloth. For acne, you can also try a salicylic acid peel at your dermatologist's office.
Oily or thicker skin can benefit from manual exfoliation and brushing. Oily skin may have an extra layer of buildup on the surface that manual exfoliation can remove. Gently use an exfoliator or scrub in circular motions for the best results.
If your skin doesn't have any complications, you can choose any method of exfoliation. Manual and chemical exfoliation is both safe for this skin type. You may need to experiment to find out which way works best for your skin.
Combination skin may require a mix of mechanical and chemical exfoliation. Never use both on the same day as it can irritate the skin. If your skin feels dry after exfoliation, use a moisturizer immediately after.
Exfoliation by body part
Take care when exfoliating sensitive areas of the body, including the face. Exfoliating these areas too often can lead to dryness, redness, and itchiness.
The type of exfoliant to use on your face depends on your skin type. To exfoliate your face mechanically with a scrub:
- Apply gently to the skin with a finger.
- Rub in small, circular motions.
- Rinse with lukewarm water.
- For a chemical exfoliant that's a liquid, apply with a cotton pad or washcloth.
- Work with a dermatologist to determine which type of exfoliation is safe for your skin.
Arms and legs
The easiest way to exfoliate your arms and legs is with a brush, sponge, or glove. This can help get rid of dead skin cells and stimulate circulation. Look for a body scrub at your local pharmacy or online and lather with it in the shower. You can also try dry brushing.
Feet and hands
There are scrubs and peels available to exfoliate feet and hands. You can also use a pumice stone to exfoliate feet.
You can use a loofah or body brush to exfoliate your bikini line and pubic area. Always do this in a warm shower to soften skin first. Apply scrub gently and wash thoroughly afterwards.
How often should you exfoliate
The answer to our million-dollar question is pretty universal across the board: You should exfoliate your face about two to three times a week. (An acid serum two to three nights a week, plus a weekly mask or peel, is a great routine to shoot for.)
You may have heard only once a week, but dermatologists say that for most skin types, that's not enough.
According to Dove dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, "We lose 50 million skin cells a day, and if they remain on the skin, it can look dull and dry." Encouraging that extra layer of skin cells to go on their merry way two to three times a week is the secret to smooth, glowing skin.
How often to exfoliate depends on your skin type and the type of exfoliation you're using. Some chemical exfoliants can be strong, for example. In general, exfoliating skin one to two times a week is enough to effectively dry skin.
Oily skin may require more frequent exfoliation. Avoid over-exfoliating as it can lead to redness and irritation. Talk to your dermatologist if you need help figuring out how often it's safe for you to exfoliate.
When to stop exfoliating
Stop exfoliating if you notice your skin is red, inflamed, peeling, or irritated.
Avoid exfoliation if you also use certain medications or acne products, including retinol and benzoyl peroxide. It may make your skin worse or lead to breakouts.
Exfoliation is essential for anti-aging as well. For those concerned about wrinkles, Rouleau says, "As you increase your exfoliation, you are tricking the skin into acting young again."
Retinoic acid and retinol are particular types of exfoliants that work particularly well within more profound layers of the skin. "With continued use, the skin will look younger and smoother each day," she says.
Plus, exfoliation gives the face an instant glow for all skin types, both by clearing away the dead skin cells that cause dullness and allowing your other anti-aging products to penetrate the skin more effectively.
The benefits of exfoliation include:
- removing dead skin cells
- improving circulation
- encouraging skin turnover, resulting in brighter skin
- allowing for better absorption of moisturizers and serums
What are the exfoliating ingredients to look for?
When you go to pick out an exfoliator, it's essential to look for expert-approved ingredients.
For chemical exfoliators, keep an eye out for glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids, as well as lesser-known acids like malic, lactobionic, and mandelic, which increase cell turnover like crazy.
Plant enzymes like papaya, pineapple, and pomegranate are also great natural exfoliators for sensitive skin types. If it's the physical exfoliation you're looking for, opt for gentle, natural ingredients less likely to damage the skin, like pumice, poppy seeds, and jojoba beads.
Is it true that exfoliating is good for the skin?
It can be. By removing the outer layer of dead skin cells, exfoliation can make skin look better and help some skin conditions. The skin naturally sheds this top layer about every 30 days; exfoliation accelerates what the skin does on its own.
Skin shedding slows as you get older, resulting in dry, flaky, and itchy skin. Exfoliation brings newer, healthier skin cells to the surface. These younger cells hold water better and allow the moisturizer to penetrate better.
If you're prone to razor rash (folliculitis), exfoliating before shaving helps prevent hairs from becoming ingrown. Exfoliation may also improve hyperpigmented or uneven skin tone (due to sun damage, for example).
There are two main ways to exfoliate: mechanically, using a washcloth, loofah sponge, body brush, or skincare product that contains abrasive particles (such as almond meal or apricot seeds); or chemically, with hydroxy acids (such as glycolic acid and lactic acid), found in some over-the-counter cleansers.
Chemical peels are done at dermatologists' offices—primarily for cosmetic reasons and sun-damaged skin—use more potent agents.
(Note: Avoid exfoliant cleansers that contain plastic microbeads, which pass through many sewage treatment plants and pollute waterways. These beads are usually listed as polyethylene or polypropylene in the ingredients label, if there is one.)
You can exfoliate once or twice a week, but do it gently and moisturize afterwards.
Don't use anything too abrasive on your face. If you want to use a chemical exfoliant and have sensitive skin or a skin condition, talk to your health care provider about which product—if any—is best for you.
Important safety tips
Exfoliation usually leaves you with smoother, softer skin. To maintain these results, make sure you follow up with a good moisturizer that's best for your skin type.
- If you have dry skin, opt for a cream moisturizer, which is richer than a lotion one. If you have combination or oily skin, look for a light, oil-free lotion or gel-based moisturizer.
- While you probably already know about the importance of wearing sunscreen, it's even more important if you've been exfoliating.
- Acids and mechanical exfoliation remove a complete layer of skin from your face. The newly exposed skin is susceptible to sunlight and much more likely to burn. Find out which SPF you should be using on your face.
In addition, you should be extra cautious with exfoliation if you have:
- an active acne breakout
- an underlying condition that causes lesions on your face, such as herpes simplex
Finally, before trying any new product on your skin, do a small patch test first. Apply a little bit of the new product to a small area of your body, like the inside of your arm.
Follow the manufacturer's instructions for application and removal. If you don't notice any signs of irritation after 24 hours, you can try using it on your face.
The bottom line
Exfoliation is effective in removing dead skin from your face. This will leave you with smoother, softer skin. If you wear makeup, also notice that exfoliation helps it to go on more evenly.
Just make sure you start slowly to determine which products and types of exfoliants your skin can handle, and always follow up with moisturizer and sunscreen.